First Person

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Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

It takes more than just teachers to run a school. By the time the Brooklyn Arts Academy was a full 9-12 high school, close to 20 non-teaching staff members served our 400 students in some capacity. As one of only three teachers who had remained on staff for three continuous years, I developed positive relationships with many of these individuals. Having proven my dependability, I was granted favors small and large that helped me do my job. At the same time, I was often mystified by the seeming dysfunction of our staff as a whole.

I began my third year as the 10th-grade global history teacher with a renewed sense of optimism. I’d achieved a significant improvement in my students’ Regents exam scores the year before, and I felt good about a couple of personnel additions the principal had made over the summer. A new assistant principal in charge of instruction seemed knowledgeable and personable. A special education teacher was also made an AP in charge of data analysis, and he likewise proved to be a responsive and diligent administrator. Our two new APs did a lot to help the school run more smoothly. However, it seemed as though both were coached to side with the principal during any conflict with the teachers.

The women who worked in the office were also in no position to challenge the principal. Predominantly Puerto Rican woman, many of them got their jobs through connections to the principal or to each other. The principal’s personal secretary had been with him from the beginning. She had little interactions with teachers but was in charge of scheduling among other responsibilities. I often felt frustrated by her placement of students into cohorts that moved together from class to class. Students placed in groups with chronically disruptive classmates never had respite. A colleague told me that the principal’s personal secretary has been taking night school classes and is slated to become an assistant principal next year.

Some of her family members also gained employment at the school. One was in charge of computers and technology. I liked him because he allowed me to keep an LCD projector in my room throughout the school year when most teachers had to request them for daily use. Another relative was a secretary in charge of transcripts. Last year, the daughter of the principal’s personal secretary got a job as an after-school tutor and this year she was made the new parent coordinator.

I thought of the other secretaries and school-aides as the church ladies. Most of them were congregants in the church where Mr. G was minister. The payroll secretary had also been with the principal since the beginning. She did not actually have the proper credentials to serve in this position but she was friendly and well liked. In addition to distributing paychecks, she was in charge of doling out resources and coordinating substitute teachers. She loved me because I was never late or absent, so always let me take whatever supplies I needed whenever I wanted.

Four other women worked as school aides. Their responsibilities included monitoring the lunchroom and hallways. I grew to admire and appreciate the aide that worked closely with my grade-level team. She did more to support my teaching efforts than any administrator. When I had a problem with disruptive behavior, I could count on her to pull the troublesome student out of the room and counsel him or her back to calm. She was often in my classroom and knew more than any other adult the effort I put into my lessons. As a result, she stood behind me unequivocally and touted my teaching to other students and staff, often telling them, “Mr. Lawrence is the bomb.”

The school-aides didn’t earn high salaries and had frustrating jobs. More than anyone, they were on the frontlines of our students’ drama and played roles as counselors, nurses, and disciplinarians as needed, while also sometimes being given additional secretarial tasks. Unlike the teachers, they had no union and little job security. So while they complained among each other (sometimes in my classroom after school), they had to bite their tongues around the principal. Perhaps, as devoted churchgoers, they were motivated by a sense of religious mission to serve our students.

In addition to the APs, secretaries and school aides, we also had a dean, though his position would be cut the following year. A guidance counselor functioned more as a social worker. A college-coordinator worked tirelessly to get our students through the SATs and the college-application process. A partnership coordinator worked with the school’s art and music elective teachers and wrote grants. A couple of paraprofessionals served specific students who required special education students. And the school safety agents worked in our hallways but were paid from a different budget.

With so many human resources in place, our school had the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of our students. But despite the best intentions of all of us, we never functioned in a cohesive or consistent way. The whole was not greater than the sum of its parts.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.